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The Evolution, Decline and Renaissance of Social Systems: an 8-part journey

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
21st November 2012


A summary of processes of decay and renewal by Seb Paquet:

“IN ORDER TO DESCRIBE a process through which something new emerges, we have to begin by examining the salient features and processes present in the old system that trigger the rise of the new.

In this and the next post, I will offer a quick-and-dirty, general model that describes and explains how movements happen. As you read, you may find it useful to apply the framework to your favorite obsolete institution – it could be a particular industry, the big-corp culture as a whole, or social institutions such as money and education systems.

If you have been thinking about social change, I’m pretty sure your mind will spontaneously map the general to the specific. Read on – you may even recognize yourself in there somewhere.

1. Zenith

Consider a social system which has attained a state of hegemony: for the most part, the members are interacting according to its shared culture and social norms.

Members live and operate within common social structures. They are betting, whether they be aware of it or not, on the continued success of the system. Everyone has some stake in the preservation of the structures. For instance, some may simply value the order and security that it provides. Others, who hold a privileged position in that system, may value the perks that come with that position.

A social system has an inside and an outside, but it is never perfectly closed. It functions within a larger universe and interacts with it. Inhabitants make sense of what happens on the inside through the lens of the system’s culture. They also view and understand the external world through that lens. The external world (or environment) typically changes, and the system has to adapt to these changes.

Let us consider the case where the social system is unchallenged. This means that there isn’t anything happening in its environment that the system can’t deal with without changing its culture. The system adapts to external changes by using its power to act on its surroundings, basically reconfiguring its environment in such a way that it can continue to conduct business as usual without having to reconfigure itself internally in any fundamental way.

2. Ossification

If the situation of non-challenge we have described persists for a long period of time, an interesting shift happens. The continued internal stability means that, for most of the people on the inside, the only thing that matters anymore is their set of (culturally-mediated) relationships with other people on the inside. You could say that they inhabit a shared symbolic world.

People basically care about their position inside the social system, and assess their motion against this common frame of reference.

In such a situation, the higher ranks of the system naturally become filled with people who behave in self-serving fashion. Those people care a whole lot more about their position in the system than about what’s happening on the outside: their ranks are essentially comprised of sociopathic social climbers and talented zealots. (Double agents are the exception, but remain undistinguishable from the others until later phases.)

As long as the system remains unchallenged, that is, external conditions don’t change, most people don’t notice this shift happening. Remember: for all practical purposes, the outside world doesn’t matter. They keep paying attention to internal political musical chairs-style games, instead of focusing on where the real change is happening: on the outside, and at the interface.

From this point on, the social system will basically become a victim of its own success.

3. Reality shock & denial

The long-running homogenizing effect of culture means that everyone now carries the same assumptions about the external world that were instrumental to the efficient success of the system in its early days.

The problem that hits the system now is that conditions have changed in such a way that those assumptions are no longer warranted.

The new reality is first sensed by those few people in the system who interface with the outside world, but is essentially invisible to the people on the inside. The difficulty here is that the new reality threatens the order of the whole edifice – there is no sustainable adaptation that doesn’t involve giving up key fundamental assumptions of the culture. Because reality does not negotiate, the system faces a transformative challenge.

What happens then? In a perfect world, everyone would immediately change their minds and reorganize to face the challenge. In actuality, most of the members enter a stage of reality denial where their mind filters out inconvenient truths. To a lucid observer, it’s only a matter of time before the system collapses – it’s a walking dead. But to insiders, everything’s peachy, thank you. Thus no significant rearrangement can be made.

It is worth noting that even at this stage the system still pulls in hapless recruits, too. It is easy for uninformed youngsters or outsiders who don’t have a solid critical frame of reference to look at the past success and current grandeur of the system, and take for granted that things will go on like they have, for a long time still.

4. Emergence – “First they ignore you”

The last section made the important point that a social system does’t reach its expiration date for everyone at the same time. Obsolescence is observer-dependent. It is for this reason that the system can remain standing for a long while after its death has first been diagnosed.

In the emergence phase, people we will call free radicals start making noise from inside the system. The cultural immune system does its work: their ramblings make no sense at all to people within the system, and these people are dismissed as cranks and ignored.

However, they typically begin networking and spreading all sorts of disturbing ideas around. The ideas are disturbing because they call into question the fundamental assumptions of the shared culture.

At this point, it seems like every kook comes from a different direction and makes up a crazy moon-language of their own. Noise is everywhere. Groups may form, but they have weak coherence and little capability; they may safely be ignored.”

Part 2:

5. Hollowing Out – “Then they laugh at you”

“The emergence phase (#4) saw the free radicals made themselves known. In the hollowing out phase, a new category of people, which we will call the aesthetes, begin jumping ship.

These people are the seekers of quality. They gave the system a chance, but early on in its decline, usually without anybody else telling them, they recognized that something was amiss. They have a good nose for staleness, and they can’t bear the stink.

These people head for the exit before the smell becomes obvious to everyone else. Such moves are typically met with puzzlement and derision from people who still adhere to the shared culture and can’t see what they see.

Together, free radicals and aesthetes begin to form alternative social systems on the margins or outside of the mainstream system. I don’t mean that they necessarily go out and build cabins in the woods; this kind of activity can be pursued as a hobby of sorts.

The alternative systems they create — clubs, really — effectively operate as protected spaces or proto-organizations. Each is a scenius that affords members the ability to get to work building coherent languages around new assumptions. This scaffolding will eventually provide the basis for alternative countercultures.

Jumping the shark…

The social phenomenon known as evaporative cooling is at work here; with each aesthete’s departure, the mainstream system’s level of cluefulness is diminished. Its institutions become hollow: they still maintain a facade and an unchanged internal structure, but quality has left the building and vacuity has taken its place. Whether people still on the inside believe it or not, the system is running on empty.

The roles of institutions now begin to undergo a reversal: for instance, regulators are actually rewarded for not regulating; Quality assessment organizations serve to conceal quality deficits; sanctioned risk assessors are employed to hide risk, rather than ferret it out. Competent people are actively sidetracked or driven out at this stage. Perverse incentives kick in. The worst career faux pas you can make as a mainstreamer is to tell the truth.

6. Self-organization – “Then they fight you”

After a certain time, proto-organizations become undeniably visible to the mainstream. Because of their coherence and freshness, they begin to actively compete for talent with the social system to which they are a reaction.

The point where alternative systems pick up a significant proportion of new recruits is a significant one: it is the first time actual pain is experienced in the mainstream system, because it begins to shrink, as new recruits are not numerous enough to replace the exits.

For the mainstream system, being starved of fresh blood is really bad news for two reasons.

First, because new people are typically more creative and enthusiastic, they significantly increase a system’s ability to adapt. In their absence, the system becomes even more rigid.

Second, the system has gotten used to calling upon recruits to do most of the work necessary to maintain the system; if there is no one to renew the bottom layer, the only thing it can do is to begin squeezing the existing members, something it has never had to do. This unfortunately turns them from satisfied participants into bitter losers, moving them closer to the exit.

The empire strikes back…

Now, the system won’t go down so easily. It has to react, and it will react. To this end it can deploy two main weapons, namely, cooptation and propaganda.

Cooptation is what happens to a proto-organization when the mainstream system is able to subtly assimilate it, in such a way that its facade remains but its action is largely rendered ineffectual. The proto-organization becomes a honeypot to get recruits to believe they are building alternatives while ensuring they are actually not doing anything that matters.

Because the system still has a quite powerful attraction, cooptation is actually the typical course for most proto-organizations. However, some of them turn out to be uncooptable: a fundamental incompatibility exists between their cultural DNA and the mainstream DNA. In such cases, it is not just what the proto-organization says, but how it operates at the fundamental level that challenges the mainstream system.

Propaganda also has to enter the stage if the mainstream system is to maintain itself in the face of thriving alternatives. The system has to maintain the illusion that everything is still all right at the ranch, and that the alternatives are but a flash in the pan.

The creatives are absolutely central players on the propaganda stage. Only by harnessing the creatives’ power is it possible to keep inventing convincing stories that will circulate and (1) prop up confidence within the system, and (2) spread fear, uncertainty and doubt towards the alternatives.

Retaining the creatives is of paramount importance. Should they drop out of the system en masse, the veil would fall and everybody would know the game is nearly over for the original culture.

7. New Stories

The emergence of alternatives that attract talent pushes the mainstream system into a downward spiral.

Here’s a metaphor to describe the situation as the system is starved of resources and inching towards extinction. Picture a ten-floor building, with self-interested people on every floor, and with rope ladders between floors.

Now imagine the building is steadily filling with water, with no signs of stopping. Moreover, there is no way the roof can accommodate everyone.

What do you think will happen? In the interest of self-preservation, if at all possible, people will do their best to climb up. But more importantly, people on every floor will pull out the ladder between themselves and the floor below. (Remember, this is a complicated, rigid system, with few out-of-the-box thinkers, and there is little time to react.)

A tipping point is reached when (metaphorically) the water starts flooding the creatives’ floor. Things that they deeply care about are now overtly being sacrificed.

This is the critical juncture where the creatives stop spinning the old story and start telling new, and vastly more convincing stories. As these stories circulate and gain traction, the erroneous foundational assumption in the mainstream system is finally revealed to all to be unwarranted. The whole system experiences a Wile E. Coyote moment: it stops running, and realizes there is no longer any ground beneath it.

And then everyone else jumps ship.

8. Renaissance – “then you win”

Nature abhors a vacuum, but culture does just as well, so it doesn’t take long before people grasp onto new assumptions that are hopefully more in tune with contemporary reality.

Between the existing proto-organizations, common ground is found: new, deep, shared principles that people can believe in and upon which it is possible to build. As agreements spread out, they can then serve as a basis for growing the next mainstream culture.”

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